death on a plane

There are two sounds that are hard to differentiate but can be differentiated. The first comes from the generators, X supposes, those big things chumping away, and the second comes from wherever. Turbines? Who knows, who knows. Big complicated things with small complicated noises. X realises that the reason why the sounds are hard to separate is due not only to the fact that they are both so soft, but also because one pulses in groups of three and the other in groups of two, so that a odd polyrhythm arises. Odd because actually the pulse does not follow a strict 2:3 ratio but something more like maybe 10:14 or 8:11, so that the two sounds gently phase in and out of sync every minute or so. X leans back in the seat and pays attention. She wipes her face using the scented Spangles and attempts a nap. The seat is like everything else exquisite. There is so much space here, space everywhere, and glossiness. She tries to stop paying attention to the sounds and finds that she cannot. The sounds drone on agnostic to her suffering. They together take the form of a non-rhotic insult gangling on just beneath notice and therefore screamingly within it. To try to not listen X instead focuses on conversation. Not, to be clear, conversation that she is about to initiate or engage in but just conversation generally as a social phenomenon. This kind of observation is in fact quite difficult to pull off in the desired fashion, because of course the problem is that if she becomes absorbed in the conversation, that is to say in its meaning, then she becomes a partaker of it, a vivid but unmoving player, and sleep becomes impossible. The trick is to be aware of the sound first and foremost, that babble for which there is no real name, and to hold the meaning at a distance, it being of course impossible to ignore wholesale.  Two rows behind X in row F, probably, someone is saying that he cannot believe that the two people sitting beside him are not together, together here being used to denote presumably not the physical proximity of said couple (this X simply assumes) but some kind of relationship that has progressed beyond fucking to deep mutual understanding + appreciation and that tyrannical soul-entwining lethargy from which tragedy and myth is spun. It was very nice of you, A (the non-believing one) says, and B says, no, I’m happy to help, a hint of annoyance maybe there, maybe just the faintest hints of that, or maybe bemusement. A: and you too, that was very kind; C: no problem at all. Are you two together, goes A. That’s so very quaint. Oh no, C says, we just both happened to be there. But you’re both so nice, A says, and B+C both murmur what sound like impressively sincere notes of self-deprecation, both of them possibly looking at each other now, X imagines, a infinitesimal flash of shared understanding: what is this person about, you know what I mean? Are you sure you are not together, says A, insistent, using a tone that possesses no irony or teasing in it, only a kind of charmed wondrousness that must be unimaginably practiced. X senses something that is perhaps a kind of prank. B goes, well, maybe eventually, you never know, and laughs, and C laughs too. They both laugh and they both look straight ahead with the same expression on their faces. X does not see this but her idle brain nonetheless spits out the image with infallible clarity and truth. Both so nice, A goes, and C goes, you know it’s not always similarity that brings people together, not necessarily. A: it helps a lot, you know. B: yes, it does. But you know there are so many things. A: you are not making fun of me are you. X’s whole being goes taut at this, at this momentous turn, this flipping of the table, for actually A manages to strike a dangerously plaintive note there, so that B+C do not respond for a moment, as they are not sure if the tone indicates that (1) A believes that B+C do not generally take A seriously because they believe A is rather intrusive or because they believe (2) A is a bit odd, whicho oddness lies somewhere around the not-so-endearing end of the relevant spectrum, or (3) that A believes that B+C are trying to imply (with flabbergasting coyness) via denial that they are in fact in some sort of relationship. (Aside: who, X asks herself, even thinks in those terms these long golden liberated days?) B+C both start speaking at the same time but C (who seems to be the one with the faster reflexes overall) stops immediately and B is left carrying the fire, and says, no, no, it’s just the way things work, you know, it’s never as simple just – what you say it is, although of course we’d all like for it to be that way, and is fortunate enough to attain a rare note of equal parts lightheartedness and minimalist profundity that seems like the sort of thing generally that might sate A and his dangerous goodwill, although what  occurs now is that A actually leans back (X imagines) and says, yes, you do have a point there. X has one really big problem with flights, and it is not about sound. It is about distance, space, parameterization, etc. Which is this: X knows that the plane she is on moves at approx. 3200 km/h. This means approx. 0.9 km/s. But when she looks out she realises that the plane cannot possibly be moving that fast. She places a finger on the pane and counts some arbitrary number of seconds and notes the tiny expanse of cloud that has disappeared under the suddenly gigantic pink of the finger. Surely, she tells herself, that wisp of cloud was not – what? 4 km? That would be absurd. In fact X is wildly disoriented when she sees clouds that look really close to the plane, that look as if they are right under it, drift by lazily, because the implication is that these clouds that are so fanatically detailed must be some huge distance away, posturing fatly through all that air. X supposes that the answer lies in the self-similarity of fractal structures at different scales, which maybe explains why this particular visual effect applies to those long wispy + bouncily flocculent clouds called Extremely High Cirriform + Something Else respectively. The large stormy ones look exactly as near or far as they are, dark and threatening and not at all coy. On this particular flight X has not looked out of the window to wonder at this visual paradox not because she does not enjoy this (in fact the slightly unsettling effect is something she generally appreciates) but because (1) she does not have the window seat (she had not asked Intemper, which knew about her preference of course but gave priority to those who asked) and (2) there is this guy sitting beside the window closest to her and he keeps leaning over to look out. Said Guy is fascinating. He has short taffy hair whose colour varies drastically with the light (watch for it as the plane banks!) between bright blonde/brown and is wearing a hopelessly purple T-shirt that is just slightly too small, not grippingly tight per se, just enough to grip the biceps although he is not what one call muscular just skinny but well-built or something, with the words MONGLOID PORN INFERNO boldly printed on in black sans serif. Grey eyes or green eyes or blue eyes or whatever, it all depends on the angle and the timbre of the light anyway. He chuckles. This is important because X, while familiar with the idea, has rarely if ever seen anyone who actually chuckles. It is an action far easier to imagine than observe but SG has apparently developed the capacity and intellectual fearlessness to actually do it. He looks out of the window, smiles infectiously, shakes his head, and chuckles, not in a self-satisfied manner but in the manner of someone who knows a very good joke and is running it over and over again and still finding it funny and finding the fact that he finds it funny itself funny – and so on, piling up onwards to infinity. SG shows his teeth when he chuckles and his incisors are normally shaped but unusually prominent, perhaps because of the way he opens his mouth. His eyes appear heterotropic. It is the right one that appears to be lazy, although only very slightly so if at all. To be honest X only notices it because she tells herself that there is something abnormal about someone in his mid-30s to look somehow so childishly naïve, although naïve is the wrong word isn’t it, maybe playful is really the word even though even that seems rather simplistic, maybe more enthusiastic, or easily amused. Definitely not naïve in any case, more like a person who sees lots of funny stuff that no-one else notices and totally good-naturedly does not talk about it for fear of seeming cynical. SG notices X watching and X asks, what are you looking at, partly because she wants to know what X is looking at and partly because it is one of those glances that sort of makes eye contact and if the other person looks away without you saying anything the situation becomes awkward in a fashion that gathers static all through the day, so one really might as well say something and make it look as if one was attempting in the first place to get the other person’s attention. So X asks, what are you looking at, and SG says earnestly, well, I don’t know, don’t you think flights are boring? The plane shudders a little, a metal myoclonus, and X says, battered veteran that she is, yeah, totally, no matter how good they get somehow I just can’t enjoy any of the usual things if I’m on a plane. I try watching movies and you know what? it just ruins them for me, even if I do immersion or whatever. SG: you like movies in general? X: yeah, pretty fond. A: cool, you’ll like this, and smiles, not infectious come to think of it, more like positively bubonic. X shuffles across and leans over SG and looks out into an expanse of disappointingly fluffy whiteness. I can’t see anything she says, and X immediately says, well the thing is that the Wrecked Church is down there, just over there. It’s– and X says, rolling her eyes, yes, I know what it is, but how do you know it’s there? Well I can just feel it, you know, SG goes, and adds immediately after, I’m sorry, which utterance would have been embarrassed if not for the strange undissembled cheerfulness of it. X decides to play the game, knowing of course that SG just asked QC or whoever and says, that’s not that interesting is it. I mean I can’t even see it from up here. SG nods and says, well not so interesting by itself  — he messes with his hair here – but the thing is that I’m going to put this snouty thing right into it and see what happens and that will be fun, you know, because of The Defence. X: you mean the plane? SG: yeah, I mean this plane. X laughs and says, you know, you really need to get yourself a better imagination. SG looks thoughtful for a while or maybe a little worried in a smiling sort of way ans says and says at last, well – nods subtly to himself, confirming something – truthfully I have a bigger problem. X waits for him to continue but he looks out of the window, undecided, and she says, what? SG: oh, I don’t want to talk about it. But X presses. SG: it’s a bit weird. X: what? SG: I don’t know if it’s really the kind of thing – well, it’s about, you know, fucking. X is surprised, but also happy, in a strange way, she is back to these well-worn eccentricities.  Ah, but we all have our problems with fucking, no? SG: it’s not really in the same order, reallyX: what, what, say it! SG: oh wellX: do you like need some right now? Because there were like five of them going at it back there, so really – SG: well the main thing is that when I fuck people, and I really like fucking actually, although that’s normal, who does not like fucking, but my problem, main problem I guess is that when I fuck people, specifically people, I get really carried away and kill them. Not actually that I want to kill them, not at all, or that I have some fetish or something, but that I just get carried away, as in physically. I go on top of them and then I get excited and pull whoever to pieces, you know, they just come apart like that. X (after pondering this appropriately): are you an artist or something? That sounds very artistic. SG: maybe, maybe, but it sounds more like a social dysfunction than a conscious artistic endeavour really doesn’t it? And then he turns to look out of the window. Oh well. I can’t help me. And now it’s time to test The Defence. X: why do something like that, now something does indeed seem to be wrong, because this joke does not hold together too well, and anyone with functioning social antennae would have ended it by now, and The Defence is not too often the subject of jokes. Well because I thought it would be totally cool. You’ll always need to talk to old friends, you know, find a way to see them, say hi. Plus the explosion will be epic! There is a loud crack as the armrest cracks under SG’s grip. He shrugs guiltily and shakes his head says, shit, look, I’ve gotten all excited talking about this. X now knows that something is distinctly wrong, and besides those armrests are very stout, and manages to say, what? And SG says: I’m sorry, sorry. But if I got all the people out it would be fake, and fake—you know, it’s not bad, but I really need people here for these purposes. X is a little angry now, maybe scared, and says, the plane is tethered. And SG points, reasonably, that if you overcome (1) the fields, (2) the tethers, and/or (3) the thing the plane is tethered to then the fact that the plane is tethered does not make that much of a difference does it? X says, there is also the Gatekeeper, although she of course does not believe for a second that SG is in fact capable of doing what he says. SG looks pained for a moment, like genuinely sincerely regretful, and despite herself X feels a pang of absurd sympathy. Well, SG says, recently they changed the Gatekeeper, you know. This one was extremely good. What a fucking monster it was. The pity of it was that if it had been weaker or just a bit less I suppose stubborn I would not have need to kill it but as things stood I had to kill it, which really was a mythic waste. At this point the sheer honesty and genuineness SG is displaying is inspiring in X a wave of disembodied horror, and she stares at him and says, you can’t kill a Gatekeeper. You bloody liar. Her hope is that he will grin and laugh and say, I really got you there didn’t I. But he says, well, and pauses, and then X and the rest of the passengers are falling towards the ceiling of the plane with vulgar force, there is a loud metallic shriek, a coarse rising wheeeeeewheeeeeuuu with umlauts everywhere, a sudden emergency alarm goes off spastically, and generally things are a total mess though SG remains in his seat and stares wistfully out of the window. It is unclear if the plane has actually flipped over or if something more surreal is taking place, and then things reverse – and people fall back into/on/over their seats/other people/serving trays/cups of FruitFresh/Zappa. X collapses helplessly into SG’s lap with hair in her mouth and scrambles off saying, oh my god you, you, you, what did you do? and tries to call QC as no doubt everyone else on the plane is doing and gets graceless blankness sounding in her ears. Sorry, SG says yet again. But yeah this is the sort of thing I do. Or can do. Otherwise flights would be so boring, and fuck that, you know what I mean? I hope you don’t think I’m being self-centered or anything. And to put things in context, please just let me say this, actually this isn’t that much worse than the thing with the train, so if you care about that sort of thing – not necessarily that awful, if you put things in perspective. SG says this with utter sincerity, he is pleading for X to put herself in his place, from whence he seems to think that everything will be made clear. X knows what SG is referring to now, possibly she even has an idea of what SG actually is, and stands up in the aisle and shouts, oh shit, kill this guy, he’s doing it, kill him kill him kill him. The other passengers, rattled no doubt by their inability to get QC + the weirdness of the whole unceremonious flipping-over thing + that piercing whine, nonetheless only stare blankly at her, and X can see A actually beginning to shake his condescending shitty head, what a total wanker that guy is, she thinks like a stab of clarity through the panic. I swear he did it, she says, lamely even to her own ears. SG stands up, having to dip his head a little because he’s not in the aisle, and helpfully offers, hi everyone. She’s actually correct, you know. There are murmurs of what’s this guy saying? So SG says, well if you look out of your windows, folks on the left here, I’ll make the second generator come off about now. People look out and indeed the thing twists itself off and plummets. Then the general screaming starts, and someone actually leaps right at SG, and he says, oh please no violence, and steps aside and as the person stumbles past SG grabs his arm and takes it off. There is a gunshot, two gunshots, and SG grins brilliantly and says, now who did that, and chuckles with joy at the game. You did that didn’t you. He goes over to a shaking guy and tells him, stand up, come on, stand up now, coaxingly, like he has a lot of good experience with small children doing bad things or something. The man stands up and SG says, do you have your cell on you? Man passes SG his phone and SG says, selfie! He holds the phone out with his right arm and his left goes around the shoulders of the other the sobbing shaking guy, clutching him tight, and he presses his face against the man’s and says, smile! The man actually tries to smile thorough his terror and snot and all of a sudden X recognises C. SG pulls a silly cross-eyed look and there is a dainty bing as the shot is taken and then SG clutches the other guy suddenly very hard indeed and there is a neat crunch and he sort of dissolves into a generic red mess from the torso up. Something weird: the big impossible splat in the air itself seems to move outward slowly, gooishly, although everything else is in normal time, that is to say, total chaos. X is screaming, or maybe not, it’s all quite vague. But SG turns around and says to X, yeah, I’m totally sorry about this, looking sad. The high metallic whine stops and the plane pitches downward sharply. Here we go, SG says. X stupidly says, the generators are still running, even though that fact does not to her mind pose a conceptual problem of any sort, and in any case there must be more urgent things to be said at this point. SG apologetically replies, yeah, the ones left, but they’re not so relevant. X: so we’re all gonna die; SG: well I’ll be okay.

Predicate

“Wycliffe,Wycliffe, someone’s dead. How can we be talking about this when someone has just died? Can we please stop talking about this? Shit. Shit.”

“You killed him,” Wycliffe said, accusatorily, but without an excess of passion.

“You don’t have to tell me that, Wycliffe. You’re so obvious sometimes…” Real anxiety now, real distress.

What had happened was that Capt. Samuel Wycliffe, sometime commander of C Company, 2nd Battlegroup of the Heavy Transporter Dropsy, had proposed one of the secure meeting rooms as the place in which to see Sigmund, and forgotten to lock the door. Pt. Tsigalkis had opened the door and said: “Um, oh. Good afternoon, sir.” And Capt. Wycliffe had said, “Could you close the door, please?” And Tsigalkis had closed the door behind him. Then he had seen Sigmund, who said “Aaaah,” and Tsigalkis’ jaw had dropped. It dropped to the floor and he made a slight moaning noise with his mouth (because no tongue) and he fell down dead.

“Isn’t this what you were meant for, hmm?” Wycliffe said, loudly, to get past Sigmund’s grief. He was fascinated. It was a quality inherent in him, that he was always interested in learning, in observing. He was not intrinsically a soldier, see, but he could put two and two together just like that, and that was helpful – Major Head had said so herself, affirmed it, so she said, in no uncertain terms.

“Shit, shit,” Sigmund said.

“It’s just one person,” Wycliffe screamed. “Aren’t you made for this?” He needed to get Sigmund to focus, to come to the issue at hand.

Sigmund turned this way and that, bobbed up and down, “Please, Wycliffe. You know better, why must you do this now… Descendants aren’t made for anything. That’s the entire point of it, that’s the whole reason…”

Wycliffe was relentless, “But why,” he said, “Why are you so upset? This is a war, you know, death is in the bond, it’s the interest.”

“Oh, Wycliffe, I need time, I need time. This is so affecting.”

Wycliffe allowed himself to feel some pity, secreted a small drop of it and held it there, poised, a tingling between his nipples. He reached out to Sigmund, who flinched, he imagined, jerked in the air a little, and ran his finger across the bottom the little black sphere, a gesture intended to comfort. Sigmund liked that, he knew, has an animal indenture in – him? her? it? – that had not been shaken off, and he could thread that needle…

“Thank you, thank you,” Sigmund said. Its voice quavered. “You don’t know, you really don’t know how much this helps, this human contact, these small acts of kindness, you really don’t know.”

“It was my fault,” Wycliffe said, reasonably.

“It was,” Sigmund says, “Wasn’t it absolutely? I told you, didn’t I? I told you. I said if we used these rooms I couldn’t tell if someone was coming…”

“You could,” Wycliffe said, now stung, convolute movements of the finger almost now stopping, poised … “Surely it must be an easy thing for you.”

Sigmund was in a real state. The poor thing had killed someone –“How can you demand this of me? I tell you now as I told you then, I tell you, it takes effort, it would have been a waste, people might have detected it, oh, Wycliffe, there are all these reasons –

“So killing him was a right thing to do, then,” Wycliffe ventured, cooingly.

“That is not it. That is not it! It was so unnecessary, Wycliffe, I hate it, this loss of life. It’s fucking awful.” Sigmund floated off, a little higher, beyond the sympathetic writhings of Wycliffe’s finger. It fixed Wycliffe with a look, it turned and made sure that the little eye spot, what appeared to be an eye spot, had Wycliffe squarely in its gaze. The deep dispensaries in Wycliffe consulted manuals … generated, even now, after so many shared moments, moments of love, almost, and confidentiality, a recipe for fear–

“Do you think I am not being serious?” Sigmund asked.

Wycliffe merely observed. His sphincters were tight, quiet, expectant.

“I am being serious, Wycliffe, I am trying to be as honest as possible. I hate killing people. Now poor Tsigalkis is dead, and what can I do? I didn’t have to do so, something else was possible, maybe I could have done something with the memory… it was all an accident, you must believe me when I say this will come with me to the grave, I acted without thinking –”

Wycliffe drew himself up, put down his terrors. This was the moment. He must intervene. “There will be no grave,” he verily shouted, “There will be no grave because we will succeed. Am I not my brother’s keeper?” Wycliffe knew that Sigmund could not die; it was the tragedy of its nature. But the gesture counted, surely, in this war that was a tissue of gestures, what harm could one more do, but also what good, what good indeed…

“Yes,” Sigmund said, still hovering slightly out of reach. “Yes, I am sure we will succeed.”

“What about the body?” Wycliffe said.

“That’s the thing.”

“I am sorry.”

“All this effort …” Sigmund said. “I’ll put a lie in the computers. Do not worry about it.”

“When they ask me, where has he gone? I will have to say something…”

Something will do, you must trust me on this, doesn’t something always do? Don’t make me dwell on this any longer than I have to, Wycliffe, this is cruelty. This is the basest kind of cruelty. Now we must be about the business at hand.”

“I have noticed things, you know,” Wycliffe said. “There are signs, there are signals. It must be your work.”

“What signals, Wycliffe? If you see things you must tell me, we must discuss them together. This is an enterprise, I’m sure you know that…”

The swerve of the conversation was much to Wycliffe’s liking, and he enjoyed the power. He had made the title of observer into a high exalted thing, an object of envy. He expanded. Was he an anarchist or a humanist? He did not know. But he was moving somewhere, he was gravitating, that he did know, with clear and terrible certainty.

Wycliffe paced in a manner that be believed to be stately, hands moving, always moving. “I was reading the reports on Ebannen, you know. Every big installation there has been destroyed. All of it, utterly reduced to rubble, a real tragedy. Except of course for the train station at Fahrer, the network there has been untouched.”

“I know that,” Sigmund said.

There are no E carriages.”

Sigmund reeled back like it had been physically hit (although it might have been the case that in its entire existence it had never once been physically hit…) Then it said, still frozen in that position, “I am afraid, Wycliffe, that once again you have gone in a direction that is beyond me. You must explain, you must explain, my state is so fragile, you see. Help me out here.”

“You see – on the North Line, and the Southwest, and the Circle, the trains all have E carriages. A, B, C, D, E, F, and so on. But on the Crossline, on the Crossline, I was looking this up, this is the line we often use if we have slow-carry weapons we need to bring to Borundum, on the Crossline, there are no E carriages. They have gone. The Es are gone. Maybe they are still there but they are called by a different name. Do you know what I am saying? Do you sense the weight of it?” His voice rose, trembled. “There is a pattern, something was changed before we came…”

“Fascinating.” Wycliffe had rarely seen Sigmund like this. He could sense the thoughts in Sigmund, could feel odorous layers of them coming off it.

“I can read you like a book, Sigmund.” Reckless. Triumphant. (In fact Wycliffe also knew that Sigmund smelt like a book, like old heirs of lignin and cellulose, ancient admixtures of benzaldehyde, ethyl benzene, 2-ethyl hexanol, akyl ketene dimer, furfural, acetic acid, tolulene, all the assorted halituous products of lipid peroxidation … even vanillin, yes, even that, Wycliffe could detect it entombed beneath all those aromatic strata, rudely agamic perfume that reminded of cream, of cake, strangely generated by this thing made purely, he was told, of metal, and nothing else, not even a soul with which to guilt it…)

“I am not a book,” Sigmund said. “Why would you read me like a book?”

Wycliffe was shocked by this rudeness, this kind of naiveté, he was actually staggered by it.

“Tsigalkis!” Sigmund cried, shrilly. “Don’t step on Tsigalkis!”

Wycliffe was annoyed at his boots getting dirtied that way. For a moment he was about to say something vehement, something about Tsigalkis and Sigmund going around like that, killing people on instinct, the inhuman bastard… But he seized himself. He was above that.

“I can read you,” he said, coldly, “And I tell you there are no E carriages.”

“There is a solution,” Sigmund said.

Wycliffe beamed.  He was not offended, not offended at all – this was part of the frolic, it was how they played it, the quodlibet (the whole bloody thing was one, you know?), it was how they had to move, not stepwise but sliding

“There is a solution. Right before the attack, the Crossline – it got sold to Massive Transit Operations, a company that offered services, that made the trains move… but it was flawed. The divination of its monies said that the way to make the trains work well on the Crossline would be to switch the carriages around; a flexible-coupling arrangement. They would move. They would mix and form new trains, strange and wonderful new combinations constantly pulling in – can you imagine coming into one of these, stepping into a permutation that is actually unfamiliar, actually new? All the others, all the other lines, had fixed combinations. Do you see? And it was decided that E had to go. It would be too confusing otherwise. Just imagine the sounds! Bee, Cee, Dee, Eee… Do you see how a reasonable person might find it too much, if a train was all eee sounds in the wrong order? Dee, Cee, Eee, Bee. Hellish!” And Sigmund looked sad at this. “So E had to go. No E carriages. A, B, C, D, F. It was called for. A fundamental reordering, all so that passengers would experience the very minimum of confusion on the system, and travel in maximum comfort and relaxation. There would be no compromise.”

“I was meant for this,” Wycliffe breathed. “These deep things. It is hard for me to speak about such things, sometimes, it can be so hard to find the words, but it is good that you are around. You resonate.”

“Aah. Aah. ‘What could the world have to be like for language to be possible?’”

Wycliffe was on the very verge of seeing the connection, he could feel it against his skin like underwear, it lay just beneath open statement, just beneath the level of explicit feeling… but it was gone.

“What?” he said, his anguish suddenly apparent.

Sigmund was being carried away. “This is important,” it said, “This might be crucial for what happens on Ebannen. You have led me here, you have a hand in this too. ‘What would the world have to be like—’

Wycliffe snapped. “Well,” he huffed, “Well,” he swelled, “Well, it would have to be like this –” (he stamped his foot; a little of Tsigalkis’s blood jumped into the air) “It would have to be like this, the one we’re in right now, wouldn’t it?”

“But why, Wycliffe, why, we must be rigorous in such fundamental inquiries…”

“We’re using it now, you traitor, we are talking –”

“Are we?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if this, all this, is a wilderness of coincidences—”

“Are you saying that all this time, we have not been talking, hm? We have not been –communicating? Has something gone wrong inside you?” One could not simply throw a relationship like that aside. “I will not help you anymore, if you insist on this, and then you will have to kill everyone on this ship yourself. There, and there.”

Sigmund was so appalled that he immediately recognised this as the petulant joke that it was. “Wycliffe! Wycliffe, you could not, this is not in my brief, I could not possibly contemplate such a moral horror. Tsigalkis alone, Tsigalkis – I need you to help me, this is important. We want the mission to succeed, yes we want it do, very dearly so, don’t we? So you must help me, we must guide each other along…”

“Yes,” Wycliffe, says, “Yes. But you must say different things now.”

“You led me here, Wycliffe, and I am profoundly grateful. After this –”

“On with it, on with it.” Shrieking, beating the air with his fists in gratitude.

Eventually Sigmund came within reach again, so that Wycliffe could stroke it sullenly.

“What I want to know,” Sigmund enunciated carefully, delicately, a dark sheen in Wycliffe’s hand – (Wycliffe imagined playing tennis with Sigmund, not against, but with – tha-whoosh, and a 250 km/h screamer that smears over the net, Sigmud screaming in the panic of it and letting it all go so that the spectators bubble and topple like dominoes…) “What I want to know is, what we should figure out is, does a nonexistent object have properties?”

“No,” said Wycliffe with finality.

“Ah,” said Sigmund.

Wycliffe knew that he had to be patient. “What?”

Sigmund was silent.

“The thing is,” Wycliffe said, carefully, “The thing is, that if it does not exist, then there’s nothing to it, is there?”

“But if you know – but surely if you know that something does not exist it is because of something that has been ascribed to it that allows you to say it does not exist? Things in the stories? Fictions? Hmm? I need your assistance in this, Wycliffe.”

Wycliffe thought hard. Little torpedoes behind his eyeballs, exploding, bright things of sputum—

It struck him like a thunderclap, and he held Sigmund at arm’s length, goggling with revelation. “No… I know what it is, what it is – it is this – are there nonexistent things? I have it, Sigmund.”

Sigmund looked exactly the same, but it was a look of awe, Wycliffe knew.

“You must see where I am coming from, Sigmund – you cannot think of something – you cannot say anything about something, not even that it does not exist, without first thinking of it existing.” Words like a flood, today Wycliffe was inspired, he was in a different place altogether, the phantasmagory rising between his legs, in his telencephalon – “‘There is’ and ‘There exists’, they’re not the same – look! If only things with meanings can be true and I say – ” Wycliffe pointed at Sigmund and said, “You have no mother, surely you have no mother.”

“I do not,” Sigmund affirmed.

“A name, I need a name!”

“Maman,” Sigmund offered.

“If I say – Maman, your mother, does not exist, then surely if this is true then this statement must mean something – but then each part of it must mean something – and if Maman must mean something – ” Wycliffe was flushed with the intensity of this exhalation. “Do you see what I am saying, Sigmund? There is a contradiction here because ‘Maman does not exist’ – for that to make sense, if we are to put our hands together and say this is true then Maman must denote something, and therefore exist…”

Sigmund was contemplating Tsigalkis’ jaw. “There is a way out,” it said, at last. “I must puncture your rapture, Wycliffe, although it is something to behold, quite, quite extraordinary … Let me say this. Let me describe, let us not use the name – names, they are so devious, they lie, you know, I have experience … Let me say, instead of ‘Maman does not exist’, let me say ‘It is not the case that there is exactly one Thing, which is my mother.’ My terms are general, they are uniqueness terms, there is no problem –”

Wycliffe chewed his lip with ferocity. “You said this was important for the war.”

“It is crucial.” Solemn now, in its unpinnable way.

“Well then,” hands together, numbness in his skull, violence all wrapped under skin, MIRVs poking from his teeth, “Well then! Then I say to you you are naive – for we do not – aaaahh – there is no need, if you look at what we do – we do not need these definite descriptions, sometimes our idea if what something is is not a unique thing at all even if we think it is – all I know about Leviathan is that he rules the Kingdom, but there have been many rulers of the Kingdom … or my identification of him might be wrong, the correspondence might not be clean – ahh, this is deep, Sigmund, this is what I like about you…”

“Solution!” Sigmund egged. “You stand on the abyss now, you daring – you, mad little cumlet—”

“I have said it, I just said it – do you not listen to me, Sigmund? After all this time? Never mind, I forgive, I am always forgiving, anything for victory, you say… The solution is that these things are different – ‘There is’ and ‘There exists’, there is altogether no relation between them whatsoever.

Sigmund was testing this idea. Wycliffe felt it like cancer in his marrow, like hot lead. He dabbed at his trembling lip. “So if I say there is a round square –”

Trivial. Wycliffe batted something away. “No, no, it is impossible, it is not in this world. In this world, in this possible world, it cannot be – it is a contradiction. But in all the other impossible worlds – I have no right to divine, who can say what things lurk there? All our nonexistent Things have all their properties. But they’d better damn well stay in their worlds…”

“It’s a jungle out there,” Sigmund offers. “All these worlds, these repositories of nonexistent things, this concrete theatre…”

“A big jungle, you are damn right it is a jungle.”

“And all these things hiding in there.”

“Bright spangly fish, little darting things.”

“Empty names. Monsters. Big things with teeth.”

Wycliffe was suspicious of Sigmund when it spoke like that, like it had been expecting the answer from the very beginning. He had an ear for these things (even though he did not know it; and Wycliffe was a person unusually aware of his own talents). A wild suspicion took hold of him and he felt like reaching out and grabbing Sigmund, thought what it needed was a good shake through and through – but he was magnanimous; he could give Sigmund this small taste of victory. The heavy lifting had been his and a sense of sickening robustness gripped him with ferocity. “And now on to Ebannen,” he proclaimed, “who can say what lies there?”

“This was important,” Sigmund said, “Merely speaking about this, conjuring – I tell you this will have effects – ”

Wycliffe moved towards the door. “There is no more time,” he said. “They will be looking for me now.”

“Yes,” Sigmund said, “Yes, you should go now.” It turned wearily to the body.

Wycliffe was nearly at the Officers’ Mess when he realised that he and Sigmund had never got around to discussing that matter at hand. But he was too joyful to care. He breathed in, he breathed in so many smells.

Machine Anxiety

In Wilcox, that is the Wilcox of 2987, although the timebound nature of the subject of the following is surely subject to dispute, there was a tractor. It was green and had a yellow stripe running down the side of the cab; it was a fine tractor. It was big and semiarticulated and had a four-wheel drive and its wheels with their grooved tires were nearly twice the height of a man. It had a big nose that elegantly sloped like a dog’s snout tipped with sportish headlights flush with the surface and it gleamed unnecessarily and greenly in the light although it was well-used. Its model name was 3623TR. Its demeanour was friendly and its disposition unassuming. It had 400hp (300 for the PTO) and was powered (initially and possibly only ever) by an 11.2L RRO with variable and fixed geometry turbochargers and supercooled manifold systems, evidently a new industry standard, and had infinitely variable transmission. Its hydraulic capacity was 370L/min and its hitch-lift capacity was just under 11,500kg. The front axle had a high-capacity wet clutch splined to the transmission output shaft consisting of one large coned-disc spring, six separator plates, and six friction disks. The torque transfer was demonstrably excellent.

In the autumn the tractor began killing people, indeed, consuming them really was closer to the truth of it, so vital was the sequence of events, and carried out with such lithe atavism. The first ingested subject was found on the morning of the 23rd with his head popped like a grape under the front left tire and his body mushed into the soil. The manner of the death was obvious but the sequence of events that could have encouraged or compelled a grown and largely sensible adult to lie in the path of a tractor, and such a fine tractor at that, was never made out. Indeed the local police never figured out after two weeks of their tracers going around everywhere who had been driving the vehicle with the variable and fixed geometry turbos when Stu had been creamed. Nobody had the heart in them to blame the tractor, since the very sight of it filled one with virility and hope. And in any case the thing moved too slowly for it to surprise anyone. It bore its majesty with great weight. A 3623TR weighed nearly twenty tons. Stu’s fault.

The tractor was cleaned and placed in the garage. The owner considered selling it but there was no good reason to part with it and so it was not sold. It was inspected and it was dutifully noted that there was nothing amiss about it. The second person  was found pulped in the fields a week later and there was nothing new about it except that the tractor had apparently gone over her and then back again and so she was cut all the way through the middle. The owner insisted that he had locked the garage and that he had the key and was asked severe questions but no reason for his murdering his wife could be reasonably discerned since by all accounts their relationship had been uncommonly healthy and numerous individuals of good standing in the community testified to this effect. It was while the owner was in custody that the third thing happened, which was that the tractor which had been placed in a cordon evidently left its place in the field and rumbled several kilometres through the adjoining field, leaving muddy troughs in its wake, and rolled over a full family of four, which family was spread or smeared or ground over a patch of field about twenty metres by fifteen across. The cordon had not been broken and the tractor was a bit muddy. How it managed to run over an entire family was altogether beyond reckoning.

A serious manhunt began, the owner was released, and he stopped using the tractor after people stared at him when he tried to do so. Nonetheless everyone said it was a pity, truly a pity, that he had to stop using it, because of course it was an excellent vehicle and surely the objection to its open use was only a gesture of respect for the victims’ families (owner included.) Children sneaked into the garage to look at the tractor with the yellow wheel rims and the gorgeous rhinal slope and four-wheel drive. But the tractor’s violence did not stop with its permanent confinement in the garage, for in a month it appeared in an entirely  different town quite some distance away and again there was a squelching; a man who had decided to take a walk early in the morning. How it arrived there no-one knew as this time there were no tracks although the folding mechanism on the garage door did whine and wrench and give out when the owner, hearing of the news, staggered out to see if it was in fact true that the tractor he did not use had appeared nearly sixty kilometres away. There was no sign that the tractor had been occupied at the relevant time. The media called it a rampage.

No-one ever saw it happening. No-one saw the tractor move, even if the necessity and the traces of such movement were plain to see. No-one saw it escape the garage and no-one saw it come trundling after people. People became afraid. In the evenings people shut the doors and at night they looked across the fields and the roads to watch for a gleaming that came around like murder, luminous green and yellow executions. No-one thought that if it came there would be a sound to alert them: for surely the tractor came silent footloose through the halls of the night. The tractor’s prowling spread, its circle of territory grew. It fell through the attic of a nondescript white building on the outskirts of the city into the nursery on the first floor. It got people in fields. It got people on roads, proper roads and small dirt roads. It got a woman in her car who had come back from shopping tired and had fallen asleep at the wheel two metres from her front door. The body never got retrieved, properly speaking.

The police took the tractor away. They put it in a room with blastproof doors and they looked at it with cameras, or rather the cameras looked at the glowing semiarticulated thing with the impressive hitch-lift capacity and then people looked at the records afterwards. There were movement sensors and heat sensors and sensors that sensed radio waves and infrared and UV besides. The tractor did not move. The cameras said it did not move. The sensors sensed nothing. The tractor did what tractors, even good robust tractors, did when not being driven, which was sit virginally where it was.

The tractor’s range grew and the sporadic attacks became more frequent. It made excursions into the city. It appeared in a basement where there had been a party of some sort. Its appetite must have grown for even all over its soft nose there was human muck, and its back too, not just the sturdy 2057mm wheels with the mobile supercoefficient treads. The tractor had moved back and forth in the small space … sweat and loud music, fuel injections and machine purring. The pictures were vivid and beflecked.

One notable case involved the tractor crushing to death a well-to-do couple in a gorgeous flat in Hold Ave as they were in the act of copulation. The thing had evidently just dumped itself right on top of them because the weight had taken the couple still locked together right through the floor into the apartment below. The man and woman or the pieces of them rather had Vs from the treads embossed into them really deep and at points right through them. The man’s only slightly flaccid penis poked with minimalist intensity from the mess even though it was blue in death. People didn’t say it, of course, but you could imagine … the soft sounds or loud sounds, the traffic muted by the expensive windows, the sounds all here near and far away, clean fleshy sounds and bright sounds of pure locution, darkness and reflexive arcs, the bed interpreting all this as simple harmonic motion, and then a light bright as a god, two shining headlamps bearing down with metaphysical brilliance, the deep recursive roar of the 11.2L RRO, the oil and shift of the front axle coming down. But why wouldn’t people imagine? Could one not imagine being pinned under that great weight of love, all that blatant metal, unashamed of the need to maintain some distance between the signifier and the signified, that grinding and breaking under the weight, like the grind and break of orgasm… But such thoughts would only be entertained.

This was all impossible because the tractor was with the police. The media speculated: there were many tractors. And indeed there were. But the police took in the bloody hulks wherever they found them and said that all of them were the same tractor because the signs of wear and tear were same all the way down to the atom. They had pictures with three tractors lined up: the original, and another that was the same, and another that was the same (this was not yet cleaned and so there was a little blood on the hood.) The police hounded the tractors and put them all in the room. But then at some point  there was only one tractor on the room, and the cameras said only one had ever been there, while everyone involved clearly remembered taking the rest of the tractors in, and the people who had been killed remained dead, so something must have happened involving tractors, green and yellow tractors with spacious cabs and fine raised leather seats, and death.

A possible lead emerged when a man had both legs severed by the tractor but otherwise remained conscious throughout (it was assumed) the whole ordeal. He was a gibbering mess inside his head however and only insisted that he had seen a terrible light and a vast weight come over him, a firmament of sound entire, and when asked if a tractor had been involved said only it had been Maman.

Eventually a mob attacked the tractor where it was found even before the police were told. A fire was built around it but some immanence in the thing kept it lustrous in the flames even after thermite was poured on. The second mob took it to an industrial recycling facility where it was taken apart but no effect was discerned on the thing’s murderous forays. It appeared, mulched people, and was sated and still.

There was a cult of the tractor now; this was to be expected. It was a thoughtform, it was entangled, it was projection of postmodern anxieties, it was an emanation of nascent and antinomic industrial restlessness, it was a structuralist metaphor for the internal alienation of mechanistic capital; a poet wrote a thing about it in the paper, some morbid and observant individual demonstrated a statistical link between the tractor’s confinement and the range and wildness of its excursions, and Greengage Plc. fended off calls for recalls and stopped manufacturing 3623TRs.  They rapidly became, for a select few, treasured collectibles. They had stories to tell.